“I think I fell in love with him right then. Love at first sight. Ridiculous, hey? I was so happy. So fucking happy. I suppose the gods were watching. But no, useless to blame anyone else. It was my own fucking fault.”
“Why?” asked Luigi, his warm shiny black-olive eyes filled with compassion.
“Yeah. Just what I was going to ask, too.” Keith was as concerned as Luigi, his eyes troubled. Jason felt a rush of affection for both of them.
“I’m coming to that. This is so hard.” He shook his head and looked away. There was a silence, neither strained nor impatient, while the other two waited for him to continue.
“Well, it wasn’t long before we were a couple. The guys in his team didn’t seem to care about us. They liked him. He was very likable, not just sexy, not just an incredibly hot guy. He was charming and funny and could get on with everyone. They just treated me like I was his girlfriend and friend all wrapped up into one, and they never hassled me or him about us. In fact they used to tease us a little, you know, saying when he got a bit ratty about something, or his game was off, that he needed a bit of nookie. And once, when we were in the pub and Brent got all amorous and pashed me, they all cheered and laughed. Holy fuck, I miss them too. They were the realest and best friends a man could have.”
“But there was a problem. Not with me — so I thought at the time! Oh, no, not with me! — but with everybody else. Almost everybody. See he was working class. He didn’t have a fancy education. He had the wrong fucking accent.” Jason couldn’t keep the bitterness out of his voice. “My fucking parents made that 100 per cent plain when I took him home. They fucking humiliated him. In front of me.”
“What didja do?” asked Keith.
“Not enough. I should’ve told them to get thoroughly fucked. I should have taken Brent out of there right off, just left, and never gone back. But I just couldn’t fucking believe it. I couldn’t. They were my parents and … they should have loved me. They should’ve … they should have accepted that I loved him. That he made me happy.”
Once again, Jason couldn’t go on speaking. Luigi and Keith both produced a handkerchief. Luigi’s was impeccably laundered and folded, and unused. Keith’s was a tatty crumpled ball. The contrast made Jason grin. Instead of taking one he shook his head. He was able to continue.
“Well, I was even more stupid than that. I tried to introduce him to my friends. They were so snotty. They patronised him and were icily polite and made comments about him which they thought went over his head, but he knew what they were doing. He knew. He was much cleverer than any of them.” Jason stared at the bar, far away on the other side of the room, for many many heartbeats. “We were fine together. We were so happy in bed; going out to eat; going to the pub with his friends; being together. But I think he … I … oh, fuck, I was so stupid. All right. Confession time. I have a lot of money. I had a lot of money. My family is rich. And Brent wasn’t.” Again Jason looked away. He sighed.
“How can I have been so blind? Anyway, he felt the difference between us, between all my money and my family and all that stuff, which didn’t the fuck matter. It didn’t. And he tried to keep up. So he started stealing money from his work and from his cricket club. ‘Borrowing’ he called it. And they found out.”
Yet again, Jason stopped. He covered his eyes with his hands, letting go the other two men. Then in complete silence, he shook his head.
“Hey, Keith, could I have something to drink?” he said at last.
Without a word, Keith rose and went to the bar and returned with three brandies. In silence, he pushed one across the scrubbed table boards to Jason and the other to Luigi, then took a long swallow from his own glass.
“He came to me. The club said that if he repaid the money and resigned, they wouldn’t press charges. As I said, he was very popular. His work was also ready to avoid a court case if he repaid. He came to me, and asked for money. I could easily have given it to him. Even if I didn’t have it in my bank account, I could have borrowed some from somewhere. He might have had to leave the club and find a new job but at least he wouldn’t have to go to jail.”
Jason took a long swallow of his brandy. The burn as it went down his throat promised anaesthesia to come. He relished both.
“I refused. Fuck me for a cunt, I refused. He didn’t say anything, he didn’t get angry, he just looked at me. I’ll never forget that look. Never. I’ll live with it forever.”
“After he’d left, I realised I was wrong. And I was too fucking proud to go back to him and say I’d changed my mind. All I could think was that my parents and friends had been right. He was a chav, he didn’t know about money, he was a thief and a liar and a hypocrite. Shit! I, with all that money, I sat in judgement on him, when it was my friends and my family which had helped drive him to what he did.” Jason put his head in his hands and again there was a long silence.
“What happened?” asked Keith at last.
“He killed himself the day after, after the police came to charge him. “
Jason finished what was left in his glass and put it back on the table, gently, in complete contrast to the harsh bitterness and self-disgust in his speech. “I found him in his flat, shot, blood and brains sprayed over the wall. He left a note for me. He didn’t blame me, that’s the worst. He blamed only himself. He said … he said that he loved me. That I should …” Jason faltered, “Oh God! … that I should find someone else. That … that …” But Jason was quite unable to continue he was sobbing so hard.
Without a word, Keith got up and went to the office.
“Tom, I need to take Jace home now. He’s in strife. I’ll clean up tomorrow before we open.”
“’Kay. Give us a kiss before ya go.”
Keith went behind the desk and pulled Tom into an embrace. He kissed him on the cheek.
“Ya fuckin’ him yet?”
“Nah. Ya nosy bugger, Tom!”
“You know I care.”
“I know.” Keith leaned forward and kissed Tom on the lips. “Luvya, Tom.” And he hugged him again.
“Mind you don’t forget, now, about coming in early to clean up.”
Keith stuck his tongue out and grinned. “Yeah, yeah.”
He went back to the other two.
“Jace mustn’t be alone tonight,” he said to Luigi. “Wherdya live, mate?”
“Ten minutes from here. We could take a taxi.”
“Nah. At this time of night we’d have to call one. That’d take too long, and they often don’t turn up at all. I’m just round the corner. We can take him there.”
“Well,” said Luigi, hesitating. “I mean … Wouldn’t he … aren’t you his friend? I mean, should I come too?”
“Yeah, sure. Of course. He told his story to both of us. We both need to be with him. The bed’s big enough.” When Luigi still hesitated, Keith added impatiently, “Not for sex. He just needs someone to cuddle, someone to be with him when he wakes up. He mustn’t be alone.”
Luigi nodded. “Right. Can we go? Don’t you have stuff you have to do to close up?”
“No. I cleared it with Tom. C’mon Jace, let’s go home.”
With one on each side of Jason, Luigi and Keith shepherded him out the door and down the street. It was cool with the late night chill of summer, a relief after the warm day.
“Where’re we going?” asked Jason, stumbling along the pavement between them.
“My place,” replied Keith. “It’s closest.”
“I’ll be all right,” muttered Jason, but without making any attempt to leave the comforting space between the two other men.
“Yeah, roight,” said Keith. “Ya need to be with friends.”
Jason stopped dead and looked at him. Then he put his head on Keith’s shoulder and his arms round his waist. Muffled by Keith’s Grateful Dead T-shirt, he said into Keith’s neck, “Thanks, Keith.”
Then he turned to Luigi. “Thanks, Lou. You’re a top bloke.” He said it in quotes, mocking himself and paying ironic homage to this Ozzie phrase.
“More of a bottom!” But Luigi was smiling wryly. He looked past Jason to Keith then nodded at Keith, too. “C’mon,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Keith’s flat was large—the whole top floor of a weathered Victorian house just a couple of hundred yards from The Lord Grey. Jason wondered why he’d never come here before, and then realised that Keith was trying as hard as he to make their relationship work, and he hadn’t wanted to push it when Jason had turned down sex with him. The flat was furnished with just a king-sized bed, a coffee table and in a very 70s touch, bean bags. Except for books. Everywhere Jason looked there were piles of books or bookcases made from planks, held up by bricks, stuffed with books. Ouch! he thought to himself, judging people by appearances again! Keith was obviously a lot deeper than his barman persona at work — and his past as a rent-boy — made him seem.
“Some more brandy?” asked Keith. “Maybe some tea, too?”
Luigi and Jason both nodded, and while Keith was busy in the kitchen slumped into two of the bean bags. Keith returned with steaming mugs, brandy snifters and a bottle of brandy.
“It’s green tea. Watch out — it’s hot. Don’t burn yourselves!”
It was hot. Jason blew on his to cool it and took another sip of the brandy. It wasn’t very good brandy but he didn’t care. He simply felt grateful that he was here among friends, that they cared about him. It reminded him of the easy feeling he’d had with Brent’s team-mates, and their simple and unquestioning acceptance. It was better, in one respect. They were gay — well, Luigi was and Keith was bi — and so they knew what it was like to be like he was. Brent’s team-mates had liked him, hadn’t judged him, but they were still straight guys whose world was shaped and created by their perceptions, by the fact that they belonged to that great mass of straight men, with all the assumptions and axioms and cultural values that entailed. But that also made it worse in a way, too, because there was also the possibility of sex. Remembering his fuck with Luigi, he looked over at the other man in the beanbag on the other side of the coffee table and realised from the look in Luigi’s eye that he was thinking of the same thing. Absurdly, he felt a prickle of lust wash through his body and harden his cock. Embarrassed, he coloured and then watched the mocking sparkle in Luigi’s eyes grow.
“Straightboy, how are you? OK?”
“Yeah, gayboy. All the better for seeing you! Seriously, both of you. Thank you.”
Keith was watching this interchange with his eyes slitted.
“What?” asked Jason, tetchy.
“Is this the guy?”
Jason knew just what he meant. “Yeah. Luigi, meet Keith. Keith, Luigi.”
“I can see why he turned you on.” Keith’s smile was mordant.
Luigi looked uncomfortable.
“Keith. Not now! Yeah. Luigi’s hot. And so are you.”
“Look who’s talkin’!” said Keith at exactly the same moment as Luigi said “You’re pretty hot yourself, Jason.”
“OK, now we’ve got that out of the way …” Jason, “maybe I can tell you what happened after that.”
Luigi nodded, and Keith said “Roight!”
“Actually, there isn’t much to tell. I called the police. At first they wanted to blame me. Their ears twitched when they learnt Brent and I were lovers, and next thing I was a suspect. But it was obvious that Brent had shot himself, from the way the gun was held and everything. And then there was the note to me and the whole history of what had happened came out and anyway, I’d been with my grandmother the night before and she alibied me. There was a homophobic detective and went on and on at me but it was obvious to everybody that they had no case and in the end I got sick of it and said I was going to complain about their behaviour towards me to my father and that I wasn’t saying another thing till my lawyer had arrived. They didn’t even arrest me.”
“What I wanted to do after that is just hide. But they told me I’d be needed for the inquest so I stayed. My parents didn’t bother to come to the inquest to support me. I suppose they can’t really be blamed. I didn’t tell them and refused to answer my phone. But it was in the papers. His name and everything.”
“Did any of your family come?” asked Luigi.
“My sister. Amanda. I went and stayed with her. I couldn’t bear to be alone. She was the only one, except for my gran, who didn’t mind about me and Brent. In fact both gran and Amanda loved him. Amanda’s my younger sister, and Mark’s the youngest. Mark didn’t like me and Brent being a couple. He was really uncomfortable about me being gay. He was stiff and formal with Brent. At least he didn’t make snide jokes and comments about him, though, not to his face, and not to me.”
Jason took a sip of the tea which had cooled a little, and a swallow of the brandy.
“The inquest was … horrendous. Unspeakable. Appalling. So cold and clinical. And all I could think of was Brent, Brent lying there with his brains and blood on the carpet and the walls. And that it was my fault.”
“They asked me a lot of questions, but they weren’t hostile like that cunt of a policeman. I told them the truth, and … I had to keep on stopping because … oh fuck, I was so broken. They didn’t blame me. But Brent’s team mates were there. They wouldn’t speak to me. Most of them wouldn’t even look at me. Those who did were so angry, so antagonistic. Well, they had the right.”
“No they fuckin’ dedn’t!” exclaimed Keith. “They had no fuckin’ roight!” His accent was stronger when he was angry.
“He was their friend too. And I screwed up. I know I did. If I had been a better person, he would be alive today. If I had really cared about him, about us, he wouldn’t be rotting in his grave. Don’t think I don’t know that. Don’t make excuses for me.”
He took another swallow of the brandy, and some more of the tea. The tea was refreshing but the brandy seemed to make no difference to his pain. He’d hoped that it would anaesthetise his hurt, soften his loss, but it didn’t. He felt fuzzier at the edges but that was all.
“Then there was the funeral. I didn’t tell anyone where it was. But Amanda found out, and another friend Chris, who was gay, he came too. When I arrived most of the members of his team were outside the church, waiting for me. They said I wasn’t welcome.” He wiped his eyes on his T-shirt sleeve. “Yeah, well.”
So I went home and thought, where shall I go? I had my passport with me. I went to a sports shop and bought a backback. I went to the bank and drew out enough money for an air ticket and expenses for the first couple of months. Amanda wanted to stay off work for me, but I insisted that I was fine and that she should go. I left a note for her, put her keys back through her letter flap in her door and went to Heathrow.”
“I thought of America, but I didn’t have a visa and these days after 9/11 they’re so anal about that. So I thought I would try Australia and if they didn’t take me, New Zealand. I bought a return ticket with a one-year validity so I could say I was just a student looking to backpack it round Australia. And if Australia refused me entry, I was ready to go on to New Zealand. I’ve always wanted to go there.”
“It turned out that I could apply for a visa on-line. It’s issued almost immediately, but they didn’t put a stamp in my passport. It’s all electronic. Anyway, after I sorted that out, when I tried to board the plane there was a big hoo-ha because they thought I might be a terrorist.”
“Fuck me! Whoi?” Keith was astounded.
“I bought a ticket for cash — not a credit card. I was a back-packer. I dunno. Do I look like a terrorist to you chaps?” Not waiting for an answer, he continued, “So I was interviewed for an hour, and in the end they let me go after searching everything in my back-pack even taking off the effing ends of the tubes to look inside. But after God knows how long, since even they could see I wasn’t a terrorist, they let me leave. Imagine if I’d been Indian or Pakistani? I’d probably be being tortured in Guantanamo right now.
“Anyway, when I got to Melbourne, they quizzed me all over again. But I managed to convince them to let me in for six months. Then I caught the bus into the city and started walking. I walked and walked until I came to Majorca Flats.”
“It’s a row of terrace houses where I rent a room. From a really nice old lady.” He swallowed some more brandy. “You know, it’s weird. And wonderful. I’m making myself a new home here.”
“Ya could live very well here if you had a lot of money.” Keith, who Jason supposed probably knew all about poverty and valued money all the more because of it, wasn’t looking at Jason as he said this.
“I decided never to use the money. If I had been an ordinary chap, Brent would still be alive. It was the money that killed Brent. The money and me.”
“Earning ya living is hard, Jace.”
Jason shook his head. “I know. And, yeah, I deserve it. No. No inherited money.”
Keith let the subject slide. “More brandy?” he asked, looking at both men.
“Thank you, no,” said Jason at almost the same time as Luigi shook his head.
Keith swallowed the rest of his own brandy and said, “Well, c’mon then, the bedroom’s through here.”
The toilet was at one end of the short passage, and the bedroom at the other.
“Sorry about the mess.” Keith scurried round the room clearing away dirty clothing and empty glasses and mugs and pulling the bedspread straight.
They went through one by one to wee, and then they stripped to their undies. Luigi was wearing blue and red Superman trunks.
“Nice undies, Lou”. Jason was feeling much better. The grief was still there, but it had lessened to a dull ache.
Luigi just grinned. “Love yours too, straightboy!”
Jason was wearing plain white Bonds trunks. He bowed to Luigi. “We aim to please,” he replied.
Keith said, “Jace, you go in the middle. Luigi and I will go on either side of you. If ya need us in the night, just wake us up.”
“Thanks, both of you. Thank you so much. It’s … so good to have friends.” Jason swallowed the lump in his throat. “Thanks, guys. Thank you for caring.”
“No worries, Jace,” said Keith.
Luigi pulled Jason into a hug and kissed him. “I’m here for you.”
“Thank you Lou.” Jason squeezed Luigi in a tight embrace.
During the night, Jason had his recurring nightmare again. This was worse than usual. As Brent lay in the pool of congealing blood, he was looking at Jason, his eyes filled with blame and anger.
He woke up with Luigi shaking him.
“Jason, wake up!” When Jason opened his eyes, Luigi said, “You were shouting in your sleep. You were having a nightmare.”
Jason simply stared at him, unable to think. Luigi looked at him and then lay down and pulled him close. His face was so close to Jason’s that Jason could feel his breath warm on his own skin. Luigi kissed him again. “Go to sleep, now, Jace. You’re safe.”
Jason caressed Luigi’s back. It was warm, and he could feel the bones beneath the skin, the slim defenceless body of the other man. “You too, Lou. With me I mean. Thank you, my dear.” And he turned over and Luigi slipped his arms round him and spooned close to him, his groin against Jason’s bum, his legs entangled with Jason’s. Keith had slept through it all, but gave a gusty sigh as the other two lay down, and moved his body closer to Jason’s.
Jason slid one arm under Keith’s body and the other over it, and pulled closer to him. He felt the slight pudginess of Keith’s stomach, and for a moment, before he went to sleep, he wondered that he found the other man so attractive. He’d watched some gay porn and hadn’t much liked it, though the furtiveness and sense that this was taboo and somehow slightly dirty, as well as the total focus on sex had turned him on. Yet it had also seemed so hollow, so cold. All the models he’d seen had perfect bodies, washboard stomachs, shoulders like cannon-balls, biceps and thighs the size of paw-paws. Yet Keith was much sexier to him, despite not being much like the porn archetypes. Perhaps liking him made all the difference. Perhaps it was just because Keith had been wounded by life, and yet remained essentially nice.
Keith hadn’t woken, and safe in the knowledge that what he did wouldn’t be known by the other man, Jason kissed his vulnerable neck, and then, bold, kissed it again. Keith stirred and muttered something inaudible, and then stretched like a cat before snuggling even closer to Jason’s body.
The summer early morning light had turned the room gold and pink when Jason woke. Luigi was warm against his back, though Keith had moved away a little and was sprawled out over the right side of the king-sized bed. He needed to wee, but he didn’t want to disturb the other two, so he lay safe cuddled between them for a while until the need grew too pressing. The sheet and bedspread covering them had slipped off to Luigi’s side of the bed, and moving its edge carefully off himself, he slid down the end of the bed as quietly as he could and padded through to the toilet.
When he got back to the bedroom, Keith was watching him. Jason felt embarrassed. Keith’s expression combined lust, affection, concern and friendship and his chocolate eyes were sleepy and unguarded. Jason ducked his head, and without speaking, for Luigi was still asleep, slipped in between the other two, and put his arms round Keith, who reached out with his own arm and placed his hand on Jason’s thigh. All at once Jason felt like making love to the other man — to both of the men — and was embarrassed when his cock, pressed up against Keith’s butt, stiffened in his trunks, making a mockery of that part of his brain which told him how unwise this all was.